Rutgers Complex Governance Isn’t Really All that Complex: Part 1 of Improving Rutgers Governance

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Understanding Rutgers governance is really just a simple matter of understanding that Rutgers fulfills three missions that have developed over time. Rutgers was founded as a colonial college in 1766, became a land grant university in 1864, and agreed to become New Jersey’s public university in 1956 with the establishment of the Rutgers Compact between the Rutgers Board of Trustees and The State of New Jersey.  

These multiple missions and 250 year old heritage have resulted in Rutgers unique two board governing system. The Board of Trustees, which dates back to Rutgers founding by Royal Charter in 1766, has fiduciary responsibility for Rutgers assets and properties which predate the 1956 Rutgers Compact, while the Board of Governors serves as a more traditional board of directors with oversight and operating responsibility for Rutgers budget, annual tuition levels and executive leadership decisions. Comprised mainly of alumni, the Board of Trustees also serve as guardians of Rutgers heritage, its institutional integrity and its independence.

This is not a complicated issue, Rutgers is one of two institutions of higher education that are simultaneously a colonial college and public university (the other is the College of William and Mary in Virginia) and the only one that also has a land grant mission. Land grant colleges were established by the Morrill Act of 1862 to further each state’s agricultural and industrial interests and over the years land grant universities have evolved to add urban service missions, creative arts and coastal policy issues to their service portfolios.  

In addition to being one of nine colleges founded before the American Revolution, Rutgers is also one of the earliest land grant universities. Along with its new Big 10 brethren, Michigan State, Penn State, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Minnesota, Rutgers is one of the first ten of the Morrill Act land grant colleges to be established in the United States.  

Rutgers is large huge. With a $3.4 billion dollar budget, 65,000 students, 9,000 faculty and 15,400 staff, the university operates in New Brunswick, Camden and Newark and in all 21 counties through the cooperative extension program and The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. The New Brunswick campus alone operates 5 distinct campuses spread out across two cities and a river with almost 42,000 students, 6,600 faculty members and 12.500 staff teaching, working, learning and conducting research on these campuses.  New Brunswick is the historic heart of Rutgers and where the university was founded in 1766.

Disrupting a unique model of governance that has served the university and New Jersey well since before the American Revolution and the founding of our country serves no one’s interests except for a small handful of politically connected powerbrokers. Could the university and its leadership be more transparent and more (small d) democratic? Yes, without a doubt. Does Rutgers need more political appointees involved in the university’s day to day operations and oversight? Given New Jersey political leaders track record with the Port Authority, UMDNJ and the Delaware River Bridge Authority, the answer is a resounding no!

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about dusting off a stakeholder model of governance that could be used to increase transparency and shared governance at Rutgers.  

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